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Ed-Tech Talk...

by Dr. Rob Reilly

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Saving Drowning Babies is Not Always the Best Policy!

I'm an educator and I'm a techie sorta person also.

I'm not sure if it's the age we live in, or if it's the integration of technology into the curriculum, or, a combination of those things. Or it may be we just live in a more court-oriented society. But I am sure that educators need to be much more adept at enforcing, explaining, and creating policy than ever before. This seems more obvious in the technology realm than in rest of school in general, but we are all be touched by policy more so than ever before.

So let me offer this, not just to the techies, but to everyone in the hopes that we can all become more aware of the act of making policy.

The act of policy making is typically not an easy task. There are so many facets to anything that needs to be regulated by policy that creating a regulatory (or explanatory) mechanism is highly problematic. The act of policy enforcement is not always an easy task either. Certainly there are lots and lots of complicating factors that present themselves to those who must create and enforce policy.

In this democracy, all policy is subject to (and is usually) meticulously scrutinized and then criticized, and sometimes there is just plain-old knee-jerk criticism!

Of course, the act of policy making can be done by a committee or it can be done by an individual; that goes without saying. I don't want to get into any of that today. Policymaking can require a good deal of time to develop or it can be relative spontaneous. But none the less it's all policy and it all flows from the same mind set.

I want to talk to you about a key foundational issue in policy development. This is a foundational issue that is too often unseen or unappreciated by policy makers. It is so critical that not seeing or not appreciating it for what it is the downfall of many policy statements.

With that all that said, let me plow my furrow and weave the title of this article into what I'm talking to you about.

Generally speaking, those who craft policy will identify a situation or an issue and then proceed to create policy statements to define it, explain it, and/or, regulate it. And, of course, there is always the obligatory sanction statement--"if you do X, then Y and Z will befall you."

In the early phases of some policy creation certain things need to be identified/defined. And typically identifying/defining the problem is critical. But we usually don't see beyond the problem. Identifying and/or defining the problem is often a function of the process that receives too little attention. The difficulty here is that policy makers usually identify the problem but fail to realize that the problem is actually a function of a process. The process is the critical element in this phase of policy making, NOT the problem.

Let me offer this scenario to clarify my point.

There were three good friends who went fishing. They went to their favorite river, waded in, cast their lines into the water, and waited for the fish to start biting. They were having a peaceful time, the sound of the river was tranquil, and the birds were chirping. Life was good for them--they were at peace with the world. But all of a sudden a baby in a basket came floating down the river. The three friends stopped fishing immediately, grabbed the baby's basket, and brought it to the shore. But before they could do anything else the friends noticed three more babies in separate baskets floating down the river. They sprang into action, they jumped back into the water and each one of them grabbed a basket and brought it over to the shore. No sooner did they put their baskets down, than, much to their horror, they saw stream of babies-in-baskets coming down the river. The friends sprang into action. They formed a 3-person bucket brigade--they had a great system in-place, not one baby was drowned! But the babies just kept coming and coming. After about 25 minutes of piling babies onto the shore, one friend said: "I've had, enough of this!" That friend waded over to shore and angrily started walked away from the river. The friends that was still in the river yelled out in unison: "Where are you going, you can't leave us here with this problem!" Upon hearing this the 3rd friend turned and gave an answer. The answer was: "I'm going upstream to stop whoever is throwing these babies into water!"

So in my scenario, the 3 friends had to create policy, of-sorts, to address the babies-in-the-river situation. They identified the problem and took action, right? Granted that their action addressed the problem--the immediate situation--the babies floating down the river. And that was a good policy. BUTů initially the 3 friends failed to realize that the problem was a function of a process, which caused the babies to be in the river in the first place. They need to focus on the process not the problem.

Not until much later did it occur to one of the friends that their policy (albeit a hastily created bucket brigade) was not as good as a policy as it could have been. Their policy did not address the source of the problem, which is what far too many policy statements fail to do.

In policy-making there is critical need to understand that, in most cases, problems are merely functions of a process and it's the process that the policy makers and the policy itself must focus on. Certainly there will be problems that need solutions, and having a policy in-place to deal with them is needed--we would not want to have any babies drown while we're thinking up solutions to address the cause of the problem. However the bucket brigade was a good solution (temporary policy), it was NOT the best policy--it was not even the best solution at the moment.

If you grasped this, I hope it will enable you to be a better policy maker and a better policy builder and a better policy enforcer.

Epilogue: Saving babies is not always the best policy, stopping them from being thrown in in-the-first-place is.


Rob Reilly's home page: http://web.media.mit.edu/~reilly

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